God is . . . an angry turtle-torturer? Theology and the Limits of Metaphor

Featured imageI once read an “About” section of a blog in which a pastor described how he ended up in the ministry. He referenced an old political joke about a turtle: basically, if you see a turtle on a fence post, you know that it didn’t get there by itself. Someone picked it up and put it there. The implication, of course, is that God took this guy and put him in a position that he didn’t expect to be in and would not have reached on his own.

And that’s fine, as long as you don’t think very deeply or have a particular affinity for turtles.

I happened to have had a pet turtle for 15+ years, and when I read this probably-intended-to-be-cute metaphor, the first thing I thought was “What kind of jerk puts a turtle on a fence post?” Probably unawares, this writer had dragged a bit of animal cruelty and some other unfortunate  political-joke connotations into his ‘About’ blurb.

If you think for about half a second too long about the post turtle as a metaphor for God’s involvement in a human life, it breaks down and calls into question 1) whether the writer has any more business being a pastor than a turtle has being on a fence post, and 2) whether God meddles in our lives like an adolescent boy who would trap, frighten, and endanger an animal just to see what would happen.

I know what you’re thinking . . . of course I’m over-analyzing it. I know this.

But metaphors require interpretation, and like it or not, they often drag with them a host of meanings and associations, both intended and unintended. Metaphors–and words themselves–have a way of getting away from their writers and evolving meanings of their own. As any good student of literary analysis knows, the author’s original intent has to compete with the experience and knowledge that every reader brings to the text. And this reader wants no part of a God who is a jerk to turtles.

In theology, we use metaphors to explain what is inexplicable and even unknowable, whether it be the character of God or the workings of salvation. God is a father, a king, a refuge; Jesus is a shepherd, a sacrificial lamb, a cornerstone; but in a literal sense, neither of them is any of those things. These statements are all metaphors, and no matter how true they may seem, they all have limitations. We use so many metaphors to describe the divine not because they give us the whole truth, but because each one gives us a glimmer of truth.

If you stretch any metaphor too far, though, the parts that are not true overwhelm the part that is and the meaning becomes distorted, just like the unfortunate vision of God that the poor post turtle inspires for me. Metaphors also become problematic when we take one and give it precedence over all others as if it alone contains the sum of all truth.

For me, one of the most obvious examples of this problem happens with our understanding of salvation when some Christians present penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) theory not as one metaphor for salvation but as salvation itself. If you aren’t up on the terminology, PSA theory is primarily a product of the Protestant Reformation, and it is what many American evangelicals have been taught is the primary (and perhaps the only) meaning of the death of Jesus: that according to God’s divine plan, Jesus was punished on the cross as a substitute for sinners to satisfy the wrath of God against sin and make forgiveness and salvation possible.

The idea that Jesus willingly sacrificed himself for us–as unworthy as we may often be–is a compelling one. Progressive Christians who critique PSA theory sometimes forget that it does speak a powerful and redemptive truth to many people (“Formerly Fundie” blogger Benjamin L. Corey had some interesting comments about this recently, and another progressive blogger puts in a good word for PSA theory here).

Even as a critic of PSA theory, I recognize that like many metaphors, it points us toward some important grains of truth. However, it is a human metaphor based on human ideas of crime and punishment, and if we push the metaphor too far (as hardcore reformed folks like John Piper do), then we end up with a monstrous vision of God. Here are some of the problems that emerge when we carry the PSA metaphor to its logical conclusions:

  1. It means that the predominant quality of God is not love, but wrath, because God is either unable or unwilling to forgive without punishment. (Basically, God has an anger management problem and Jesus has to save us from God.)
  2. It means that there is no forgiveness, because someone always pays. A paid debt is not the same as a forgiven debt. (See Bo Sander’s apt debt analogy here)
  3. It means that God is unjust and unmerciful, because there is no justice or mercy in punishing an innocent victim for the crimes of others (Sanders and McGrath both comment more on this).
  4. It means that God is violent and that violence is redemptive, and thus it encourages the justification of violence. (Find a great starter discussion of nonviolent atonement here)
  5. All of the statements above go against the character of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. They negate the grace of God and the reconciling work of the incarnation.

One might argue that these conclusions are a result of over-analyzing the metaphor, but if PSA theory is presented as THE one and only gospel of salvation (as it often is in certain circles), then all of its implications must stand up to critical inquiry.

And the truth is that they do not. When PSA is over-emphasized, the partial truth that it contains is terribly distorted by the problematic nature of the human crime and punishment metaphor.

The good thing is that there are multiple atonement theories that can hold meaning for us and many Biblical metaphors for salvation. Other metaphors include transformation (being a “new creation”), liberation from bondage, return from exile, light in the darkness, sight for the blind, life to the dead, food and drink, and liberation and forgiveness from sin (list borrowed from Marcus Borg’s Convictions).

All of these metaphors give us a glimpse of both the human condition–our need for reconciliation, salvation, and transformation–and of the God who offers us the hope that those things are all possible.

We should be wary of leaders or communities who try to impose any single, uninterrogated metaphor to represent the truth of God or of salvation because those truths are bigger and better than any language we can devise.

When it comes to theology, metaphors are perhaps best when mixed.


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4 responses

  1. One other thing I have noticed is that there are many sports or cars metaphors to drive the point home for men, but ladies’ metaphors are often something of a joke: if the barn needs paint, then paint it (refers to make-up). Jesus used a variety of metaphors, farming, fishing, shepherding, even one about a lady who lost a coin. Jesus seems to have been much better with metaphors than many are today.

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  2. Leslie
    I love reading your blog! This one made me think of something a friend of mine, a former Catholic priest told me about the crucifixion. That Christ experienced all of human suffering, sinful and otherwise on the cross.
    My memory of, and understanding of, this idea was that create a particular kind of empathy– that through Jesus God could know in way that can only come from lived experience what it is to be human. I realize this may not jive with the notion of God as all knowing– and as a non believer I am not bothered by this idea, but it seemed very beautiful to me.

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    • Thanks, Jill! I think your friend was definitely onto something! I am very interested in types of theology (like process theology and open theism) that don’t see God as omniscient in the typical way. Process theology understands God as being present and suffering with us, and also as being responsive to humanity and evolving.

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